Saturday, 27 May 2017

Can Auditors Withdraw Their Audit Opinions?

The Star reported about auditors of a public listed company in Malaysia declaring that it audit opinion on the financial statement of that company is no longer reliable.

As far as I could recall, this is the second time in Malaysia where auditors publicly declared that reliance should not be given to their auditors reports as they were not provided with material information or facts by management when the audits were conducted.

This sort of situation is very dangerous as it would taint public confident on the reliability of auditors reports accompanying financial statements in Malaysia. As a result of such withdrawals, as termed by the news article, I have heard questions from the public as to whether such withdrawals are professionally proper and whether the auditors could just walk away from the issues without being held professionally responsible for their audit opinions.


Let us consider what the International Standards on Auditing (ISA) says about this. In my view, paragraphs 14 to 17 of ISA 560, Subsequent Events, are relevant to situations where material facts are made available to the auditors after the audited financial statements had been released. In summary, if the auditors are aware of the facts which, if known to them during the audit, would have caused them to modify their audit reports, the auditors are expected to discuss the matter with management of their clients, determine whether the financial statements require amendments and inquire how their clients would deal with the matters.

If the client's management and those charge of governance do no to anything, the auditors are expected to prevent future reliance on their audit opinions and reports and are expected to take appropriate actions. The standard does not spell out what are those appropriate actions.

Hence, making public to be aware that the auditors report are no longer reliable appears to be in line with the requirements of ISA 560, taking appropriate actions.

However, whether the auditors are absolved professionally would be a question of facts and circumstances. The Audit Oversight Board had been reporting about auditors failing to apply professional scepticism in many instances in the past. Such failure would also affect their professional judgments. 

Before auditors could be allowed to walk away with audit opinions which did not consider material facts or information, there would be few questions which the auditors would have to explain to regulators, if such cases came under regulatory scrutiny:
  • Whether the audit firm has expertise in auditing the business of their clients, including those with overseas operations?
  • How did the audit firm assess their capabilities in auditing material transactions which occurred abroad? Do they have branch offices or affiliates who could assist them in their audit?
  • How could risks were not discovered during their audit planning?
  • If those facts were around very much earlier, were there any trigger which would have alerted the auditors?
  • Why the auditors were able to sense those facts after the audit, not before?
With these kind of questions, which are not exhaustive, it would not be easy for auditors to claim that they have been cheated by clients. What more when such clients are known to the world to have cheated many times before. Under such circumstances, their professional scepticism would be heavily scrutinised, if regulators are keen to know the truth about the audit. They would have to be accountable to the audit opinions which they have issued.

We should also not forget about the companies which caused their auditors to "withdraw" their audit opinions. There could be issues of misconduct and breaches of laws. As for the company reported above, the Securities Commission had secured relevant documents. This may lead towards enforcement actions, if there were evidence of any breach of the Capital Markets Services Act. As for the earlier case, another regulator is involved. There is no information in the public domain as to whether any action is taken against the company involved.
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